Volume Introductions

Introduction to Volume 14

Golden Voices in the Golden Land: The Great Age of Cantorial Art in America

by Neil W. Levin

People used to say that the best translation of the Hebrew words [of the liturgy] was [Hazzan] Minkowski’s interpretation of them in his singing style.

—Rav Tza’er: Memorial tribute to Cantor Pinchos Minkowski in HaDoar,
January 1924

Agir en juif, c’est chaque fois un nouveau depart sur une ancienne route.

—Abraham Joshua Heschel

If someone says, “Who needs a school for hazzanut in our community?” you could also ask, “Who needs an old-age home? Who needs an orphanage? Who needs a yeshiva? Who needs talmud torahs? Who needs synagogues? Who needs agencies for charity? Who needs anything?” Hazzanut is our yidishkayt.

—Cantor Joshua Lind,
Chicago, 1954

In Europe the rabbi was the intellectual pulse and power of the synagogue; the hazzan was its heart and its soul.

—Rabbi Dr. Ismar Schorsch, keynote address at the international conference Voice of Ashkenaz, New York City, 1997

Hazzanut was not merely a profession, a vocation…. It was a holy trust, a sacred mission.

—Cantor Samuel Vigoda

I stand humbly, awestruck, and deficient in merit before You, God, who is enthroned on Israel’s praises, to plead on behalf of those who have appointed me as their voice. Though I am unworthy, I implore You to grant success to my mission. May there be no stumbling in my prayer. May my prayers be brought before Your throne of Glory and be spread before You for the sake of the righteous and upright and for the sake of Your great name.

—Hin’ni he’ani mima’as, the cantor’s personal prayer on the High Holy Days

V1THE DESIGNATION "CANTOR" is the accepted modern translation of the Hebrew hazzan, a term rooted in ancient Assyro-Babylonian, in which it denoted an overseer. (The modern equivalent of hazzan as cantor applies not only in English but in other European languages as well. In German, for example, beginning in the late 19th century, it has often been spelled deliberately with a c to differentiate it from the German kantor, which means a church choirmaster or music director.) The word appears in talmudic sources with reference to the azzan hak’nesset, a functionary in the assembly place (k’nesset) of the representatives or delegates of the twenty-four ma’amadot in antiquity—the subdivisions of nonpriestly and non-Levitical classes of Israelites that were established during the Second Temple era in order to enable their participation in the daily sacrificial ritual.

The azzan hak’nesset of antiquity was a long way from the later cantor, or hazzan. He was charged with the performance of a variety of synagogal duties and tasks, which did not include his required reading or intoning of liturgy. (According to the Jerusalem Talmud, he could do so by request.) The hazzan’s role as the vocal sh’li’a tzibbur—messenger of the congregation—became solidified during the Gaonic period, as the liturgy was expanded, and even more so during the Middle Ages, with the rapidly increasing accumulation of nonstatutory, supplementary piyyutim. The authors of those piyyutim (the paytanim) were often also ba’alei t’filla—lay precentors or prayer leaders who were in many respects the prototypes of the postmedieval hazzanim or cantors. Many of them introduced their new piyyutim in the synagogue by singing them either to tunes they had composed or to preexisting tunes to which they attached their poems.

Hazzanim in the Ashkenazi realm, with which this volume and this discussion are concerned exclusively, were frequently itinerant. In their travels and sojourns among disparate communities, they transmitted both the melodies of piyyutim and those of statutory liturgy—together with fixed prayer modes and other musical and music-related customs. Gradually this agglomeration became a composite musical tradition among Ashkenazi Jewry, in which the assignment of individual prayer modes to specific sections of the liturgy for designated liturgical occasions (Sabbaths, weekdays, Festivals, and High Holy Days)—along with a subset of seasonal leitmotifs now known colloquially as missinai tune—became canonized and undergirded with the affirmation of rabbinical authority.

Medieval hazzanim were often the only ones in their congregations who possessed prayerbook manuscripts with the complete liturgy, including but not limited to recently added piyyutim. Even if there were multiple copies that included at least the core liturgy, there could still be an insufficient number to accommodate the entire assemblage; and the same shortage could apply after the introduction of printed prayerbooks. Also, in any given congregation there could be uneven levels of the Hebrew proficiency necessary for each worshipper’s fulfillment of his liturgical obligations and the accurate recital of the prescribed texts. These factors combined to make worshippers reliant on the hazzan to conduct their services and lead them in prayer, which they came to endow with aesthetic and emotional interpretation of the words, their evocations, and their imagery. The aesthetic and, later, artistic dimensions of the hazzan’s renditions (supported by his choral or quasi-choral assistants, or m’shor’rim—a configuration that evolved into a full-fledged four-part choir by the modern era) were appropriately tied to the concept of hiddur mitzvah—the desiderata of adorning and beautifying Divine commandments and their observance, thereby giving them heightened meaning and enjoyment of performance. The commandments concerning prayer and their related rabbinic ordinances are thus enriched by musical delivery.

The hazzan is historically therefore part of the k’lei kodesh—the partnership of those who are responsible for the religious functions of the organized community. In addition to the hazzan, these include the rabbi; the shammash, or sexton; the shoet, or kosher slaughterer; the mohel; the ba’al k’ri’a, or Torah reader; the mashgi’a, who supervises and ensures the kashrut regulations; instructors in religious practice; and others on whom the community must rely for religious leadership and authority.

By the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the wholesale Jewish migrations from Rhineland and other German-speaking areas to Poland, Ashkenazi custom (minhag Ashkenaz) had become more or less crystallized. It was carried eastward with those migrations only to undergo further musical development, variation, and acculturation to local modalities, melodic and ornamental features, vocal styles, and approaches to tone and timbre. Between the late Middle Ages and the modern era, Ashkenazi hazzanut evolved from an orally transmitted craft to a highly cultivated art form, with its audible basis still in a sacred folk culture and with distinct western and eastern branches, styles, and predilections.

During the roughly two hundred years bounded by the Baroque and the dawn of the modern era, synagogue music in western and Central Europe virtually bypassed the intervening classical and rococo episodes in Western musical history. That time span saw the emergence of a class of avant-garde cantors who attempted to emulate and incorporate typical Baroque forms and styles in newly fashioned, musically notated liturgical compositions. These are all limited to single, monodic solo lines, leaving any supporting harmonization or accompaniments to improvisation. Though vast, this corpus tells us almost nothing about the contemporaneous nature of cantorial delivery of the statutory and other core sections of the liturgy, which most of these settings were clearly intended to supplement rather than to replace. A smaller number of notations from the same time frame do, however, reflect some of the types of ornamentation, embellishment, and extended melismatic lines that became a sine qua non of hazzanut. All these notations are preserved in hundreds of manuscripts and compilations containing thousands of items.

Apart from certain modal properties, we know even less about the complexion and reconstructable sound of hazzanut in the eastern Ashkenazi sphere prior to the middle of the 19th century. Probably (and ironically) the closest we can come is to apply a bit of historically grounded imagination in examining some of the freer-flowing recitative passages in the notated compositions by Salomon Sulzer in his first volume of Schir Zion, which he published in Vienna ca. 1838.

Sulzer was born in the Reichsgrafschaft of Hohenems in the culturally German and German-speaking Vorarlberg region of the Hapsburg Empire (now in Austria), where his family had lived for generations as heirs to a Bavarian tradition; and he lived in Vienna from his ascension to the pulpit of its first synagogue in 1826 until his death there in 1890. Insofar as we know, he never traveled through Polish or Polish-infused regions of eastern Europe that were home to Yiddish-speaking Jews—not even those areas, such as Galicia, that were under the rule of the empire. Yet the melismatic solo cantorial lines in some of the compositions in Schir ZionI—as well as in some of the ones he published in his second volume in 1865—clearly indicate a working familiarity with what we properly associate with the modal and motivic material as well as the intricate melismatic and ornamental style of eastern European hazzanut.

Consistent with his mission to devise a traditional but modern synagogue music, these cantorial passages—and in some cases an entire recitative, such as his Hashkivenu—are artistically restrained, tastefully lean, and devoid of the excesses of vocal display and repetition that often typify the genre. Nonetheless they reveal something of the cantorial style that was already prevalent in eastern Europe by the beginning of the 19th century, which he must have heard in renditions by itinerant cantors. By later in the century, as he assembled the contents of his 1865 volume, he also could have heard renditions in Vienna by eastern European cantors (usually cited together with their hazzanut as Polnische, or Polish, which could also be a generic tag for “eastern European” or Yiddish-speaking).

We also know from references and descriptions in written sources that as early as the late 18th century, a florid, improvisatory virtuoso cantorial style was already established and popular in historical Poland and in areas that are now part of Ukraine. And by then there were a number of identifiable gifted hazzanim who achieved regional fame, often as itinerant cantors who toured with their supporting singers. But there is no direct evidence of their art in the form of musical notations of eastern European provenance that can be dated to the period of their lifetime, and except for occasional fragments, it is only well after mid-century that we begin to find even manuscript notations of eastern European hazzanut that can be verified as having been made either by the cantor-composers themselves or by choirmasters.

The nearest thing to an exception concerns the cantorial and even choral opera attributed to Solomon Weintraub (1781–1829; known as Kashtan), who by the close of the 18th century was already in great demand in parts of Poland and the Ukraine, and who officiated at pulpits in Zamość, Tiktin, Lemberg (L’vov; now L’viv), Brisk (Brest), and—most notably—in Dubno, where he regularly conducted High Holy Day services with his choir. But the notations of his compostions were made by his son Hirsch Weintraub (1811–1881), who published them thirty years after his father’s death as an appendix to a volume of his own music. This is obviously indirect evidence, but it is accepted as a reliable document—not least because the son’s purpose was to provide a faithful reconstruction of his father’s music specifically as an historical document of the hazzanut of an earlier era that he wrongly assumed would have no performance value in the modern era.

Moreover, the Kashtan volume was intended not for eastern European cantors, few of whom were musically literate by 1859, but for cantors and choirmasters in the German-speaking Central European realm (Hirsch Weintraub was a student of Sulzer’s and was Oberkantor at the Liberale synagogue in Königsberg for forty-three years). He therefore made no conscious revisions or adjustments to his father’s pieces—not even harmonic improvements to the choral sections—or any attempt to accommodate them to contemporaneous Western musical standards. We can view them collectively as an authentic reflection of what came to be recognized as stereotypical eastern European virtuoso hazzanut of the highest order. Indeed, these settings, which require finely honed improvisational skills for the expected clichéd interpolations, pose a formidable challenge today even to the most gifted and accomplished cantors.

Over the entire course of the 19th century, virtuoso hazzanut matured along a variety of artistic avenues, culminating in a rich tradition of individual stylistic approaches, a range of musical sophistication, a long roster of legendary cantorial personalities, and a vast repertoire (some published but most remaining in manuscript if extant at all) of compositions that included formal, well-constructed pieces with significant emphasis on the choral dimensions, as well as solo recitatives based on improvisations. In the aggregate, hazzanut in eastern Europe was at its zenith in the last quarter of the century, continuing until the First World War. That approximately forty-year period came to be remembered as the “golden era” of cantors and cantorial art in Europe.

Gleaming from its firmament and known throughout the synagogue world of eastern Europe were such towering hazzanim as Efraim Zalman Rozumny, Nissi Belzer [Spivak], B’tzallel Odesser [Schulsinger], Y’rukhom Hakoton [Blindman], Nissan Blumenthal, Eleazer Mordecai Gerovitsch, Velvel Shestapol, Boruch Leib Rosowsky, Yankel Soroker, Jacob Bachmann, Osias “Pitzele” Abrass, Efraim Slepak [Shliepak], B’tzallel Brun, and Gershon Sirota, among scores of similarly great cantors—some whose names are still familiar to a handful of cantorial devotees and others whose identities are lost to posterity. Except for Sirota, who was one of the first virtuoso cantors to record, we have only written descriptions of their voices and styles. Only a small number of their compositions are preserved in published form; many more exist in manuscript, although verification is often difficult and has yet to be subjected to the methods of scientific scrutiny and authentification accorded manuscripts of other genres (which in many cases may now be impossible). We have fragments of even more, which are often insufficient for reconstruction; and thousands of cantorial creations were never notated. Of the major figures recalled here, only one (Sirota) was heard in America in his prime, but on tours, not as an émigré. He returned to Europe and was murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The Germans and their collaborators slaughtered many more accomplished cantors whose names, with some exceptions, will probably never be known.

Until late in the 20th century, cantorial aficionados and traditionalists would have insisted (as many in the cantorial fraternity as well as those in right-leaning orthodox circles still do) on retaining the evocative flavor of the Ashkenazi Hebrew as well as Yiddish pronunciations: khazn and khazonus (accent on the second syllable, rather than on the final syllable in hazzanut). Legend has it that when the world-renowned cantor Pierre Pinchik was once asked to enumerate the qualities required for one to be a successful hazzan—pronounced according to modern or Israeli Hebrew by the questioner—he claimed (or pretended) not to know to what the questioner was referring. When it was clarified for him, he is said to have responded, “Oh, khazn. Dos iz yidish. Hazzan, dos iz nisht Yidish!” His point, of course, was that for him the application of modern and Sephardi pronunciations with reference to a fundamentally and peculiarly Ashkenazi heritage reverberated artificially. For others of a similar mind-set, it could even sound affected, confusing the generic with the specific. On their surface, khazn and khazonus may mean the same things as hazzan and hazzanut. But they have subtly different emotional overtones and connotations, especially with regard to the elaborate eastern European variety of cantorial art and its characteristic mode of delivery.

“Golden ages” tend to become suspect with the passage of time. They can become targeted as depots of collective nostalgic exaggeration and as mistrusted breeding grounds for uncritical retrospective glorification. Sooner or later they invite objective (and sometimes not so objective) revisitation as well as historical revision. “Golden” is used in our volume title here because of its long-standing attachment to the roughly four decades that harbored the acme of virtuoso cantorial art in America. Perhaps it is a bit simplistic, even apart from any erroneous generational implications concerning hazzanut’s attraction; “resplendent” might be a less hackneyed and more dignified description of the era, with its celebrated star cantors, their choirs and choirmasters, the music written by and for them, and their enraptured worshippers as well as concert, recording, and radio audiences. Indeed, that episode in Jewish cultural history was not an American conception, but an American overlap and then extension—with some newly adjusted features and added elements—of the pinnacle stage and fullest bloom of late-19th–early-20th-century hazzanut in Europe.

The more we study this extended American phase with cantorially attuned musicological and ethnological tools and methods, and the more we accord it deserved critical attention, the more we confirm the aptness of its assessment as the apogee not only of transplanted hazzanut but also of its reinvigoration. It was a phenomenon that enjoyed the support and enthusiasm of elements among the immigrants whose appreciation had been cultivated in eastern Europe and of others who were initiated in America. Many (though by no means all) of the immigrants came from towns and cities where—though they could have been accustomed to authentic hazzanut or to gifted hazzanim in their local synagogues and might have heard an occasional guest Sabbath or holyday appearance by a well-known itinerant cantor and his choir—they had not had opportunities to hear those who had already acquired trans-regional recognition or would do so in future. They might not even have experienced in Europe the art of the hazzanim who would eventually achieve world renown. In their peak European years, those hazzanim often flourished in the synagogues of the more affluent and more cosmopolitan communities that could support them. Now, in America by the 1920s and 1930s, Jews could hear and receive spiritual nourishment from any number of celebrated hazzanim if they so chose—and not only in New York.

Virginal exposure in America to the heights of hazzanut could also be gained by Jews from European cities in which some of the most venerated hazzanim held major pulpits, especially if those immigrants or their families had not been religiously oriented or committed prior to immigration. Although his case was exceptional because so many hazzanim of that era were sons, grandsons, and even great-grandsons of cantors or ba’alei t’filla, an illustration of that happenstance is found in the biography of Moshe Ganchoff—who became one of the foremost artistic exponents of sophisticated hazzanut. He was born in Odessa, one of the exemplary cradles of hazzanut in all Europe, and brought to America as a youth. Yet the single experience that most ignited his determination to devote his life to hazzanut occurred in Toledo, Ohio, when he heard for the first time a service conducted by Arye Leib Rutman—one of the cantorial giants of all time, who also had sung in Odessa.

Moreover, the American extension of the European cantorial crest enjoyed a renewed lease among immediately succeeding American-born generations. With greater means to support the star cantors who by then commanded significant remuneration, they provided a fertile, encouraging environment for virtuoso hazzanim and their creative impulses.

During the first four decades of the 20th century, many of Europe’s finest and most important cantors and cantor-composers resettled in the United States—some already in their prime (for some cantors, a surprisingly sustained period), and some yet to reach their artistic heights in their adopted country. Collectively they established this resplendent extension of Europe’s radiant era of hazzanut, endowing it with influences and features that made a fundamentally European liturgical art form an American phenomenon as well. Among the most dazzling luminaries in that galaxy were Y’shaye Meisels, Yossele Rosenblatt, Yechiel Alter Karniol, Pierre Pinchik, Arye Leib Rutman, David Roitman, Zavel Kwartin, Mordecai Hershman, David Moshe Steinberg, Samuel Vigoda, Samuel Malavsky, Berele Chagy, Sholom Katz, Joseph Shlisky, Aaron [Adolph] Katchko, and Moshe Ganchoff. Leibele Waldman was one of the first of that circle to be born in America; the brothers Moshe Koussevitzky and David Kusevitsky came after the Second World War.

Among the earliest serious exponents of hazzanut to be engaged on permanent or annual bases by traditional American congregations was Karniol, who arrived in 1895 and preceded Meisels at the pulpit of the First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek, then New York’s wealthiest and most upscale orthodox congregation. Meisels ascended the pulpit after Karniol returned to Europe to become the hazzan at one of Odessa’s most prominent synagogues—functioning there with the esteemed choirmaster and composer A[vraham?] Dunayevsky and becoming known there as “the American cantor.” In 1912 Meisels was succeeded at Ohab Zedek by the most famous cantor of all time, Yossele Rosenblatt. Also among the few who were called to permanent pulpits before or around the turn of the century were Yisroel Pinchos Grodzinsky and Israel Warsawer. Warsawer was the first hazzan to serve the congregation Bet Hamidrash Hagodol, on New York’s Lower East Side, with an annual contractual commitment. Rutman came to America in 1913 and served pulpits in New York, Detroit, and Boston, in addition to his many guest appearances at synagogues elsewhere in the country. The erudite cantor Boruch Schorr accepted a summons to the pulpit of the Attorney Street Synagogue (also on New York’s Lower East Side) in the wake of a dispute with his community in Lemberg in 1890. He had been suspended for a month for appearing on a theatrical stage during a curtain call following a performance of his Yiddish operetta Shimshon Hagibbor (Samson the Great) and shaking the hand of the prima donna. But five years later, when his former Lemberg congregation swallowed its pride and pleaded for his return, Schorr accepted without hesitation and abandoned America. (He died on the bima in Lemberg while officiating on the last day of Pesah).

Many of the émigré hazzanim, while remaining faithful to the European roots of their art, sometimes fused their hazzanut and their modalities with immigrant-era features—many of them theatrically derived from the stages of Second Avenue—and accommodated to immigrant-era tastes and sensibilities. In doing so, they often reshaped, adjusted, and even expanded their approaches to hazzanut, all of which amounted to a response to new socioeconomic and cultural factors and new socioreligious situations.

Commercial recording, followed by radio, enabled these virtuoso hazzanim to attract wider audiences than previously imaginable. Cantors and cantor-composers created new repertoire in America, including many pieces aimed at those media as well as at the concert stage—in addition, of course, to the primary liturgical function. As they had done in Europe, many attained the status of quasi-folk heroes—not only among committed orthodoxy, but even among Jews who attended services at most sporadically. For fervently religious and observant elements and for those on the perimeters, hazzanut could be the major source of spiritual nourishment.

For Jews of the immigrant era and its successor generation, eastern European hazzanut in all its intricacy and splendor, together with its exemplars, could be powerful vehicles for conscious and subliminal nostalgia—a major voice of Jewish identity on emotional as well as theological planes. The phenomenon might also be analogous to the offstage as well as onstage roles played by Yiddish actors and actresses who could attain the status of folk heroes and, as symbols of Jewishness, promote a sense of connectedness and belonging in nonreligious contexts.

But for the significant number of Jews for whom the traditional synagogue remained a visceral part of their lives on some level, commanding cantorial renditions provided a genuine liturgical experience that both underlay and transcended emotional or aesthetic indulgence. Hazzanut continued to be their hiddur mitzvah—animating, amplifying, and even explicating the words in the prayerbook and intensifying the communion with both the Jewish past and the Divine presence that is the essence of prayer. The attachment to hazzanut was not limited to formal orthodoxy and the regularity of its observances. It could apply to those without orthodox commitment whose loyalty to religious values and institutions—as well as the need for at least occasional spiritual stimulation—still brought them to synagogues, even if not regularly. At the same time, there were thousands of Jews whose synagogue attendance was even less frequent—perhaps only annual—but who were nonetheless avid listeners to cantorial recordings and broadcasts and who developed affinities to particular star cantors and became patriotn (loyal fans or followers) of one or another.

Even divorced from its ideal context of synagogue services, the more narrowly and ethnically unique artistic content of elaborate hazzanut and the sheer vocal mastery of the great hazzanim are not to be discounted on their own merits. When asked his prognosis for the future of hazzanut at a 1998 symposium, Moshe Ganchoff—by then the last survivor of the “golden age”—echoed Keats in his prediction that its immortality could be assured if for no other reason than that “it is beautiful.”

In Reform surroundings of the pre–World War II era and for another decade or two, Jews tended to choose a synagogue on the basis of admiration for a particular rabbi, his personality, the atmospheric awe he inspired, and the inspirational as well as oratorical qualities of his sermons. The related conversation following a Reform Rosh Hashana service, for example, would typically center on reactions to those sermons. In orthodox and other traditional circles through the 1950s (and for a while afterward in the greater New York area), the hazzan—and by extension his choir—could be the principal attraction and focus of pre-holyday anticipation as well as post-service discussion. Congregations competed for star hazzanim for Festivals, High Holy Days, special Sabbaths, and, for those that could afford the cost, permanent year-round engagements. Services and even memberships could be advertised in the press on that basis, differing from concert notices only in their implied (and sometimes stated) spiritual dimensions.

Hazzanim of stature and renown could command substantial fees. At a time when most worshippers, especially on the High Holy Days, might not be dues-paying members of congregations, their purchase of tickets for services featuring nationally or even locally celebrated cantors was necessary to provide the means to meet those fees as well as annual operating budgets. (It was never necessary, however, to “pay to pray,” as outside cynics have sometimes naïvely charged. There have always been communally or otherwise subsidized services open to all, which rely on optional, voluntary contributions. Understandably, these services could not feature star hazzanim and choirs.)

While remaining firmly tethered to European foundations, hazzanut and hazzanim of this by now storied American phase frequently seized upon, emphasized, and even exploited certain features and habits of the less westernized and least artistically cultivated streams of cantorial practice in Europe. Prominent among these tendencies was the sometimes excessive repetition of words, phrases, sentences, and even entire sections of a prayer text. Not altogether new on the American scene, this was a common adjunct to hazzanut in general, dating to its formative periods; and it was particularly rampant among some of the most famous but less musically learned cantors and cantor-composers in Europe—especially those who were itinerant or who served pulpits in small or medium-sized towns and cities. The manuscripts of Nissi Belzer and Zeidl Rovner, for example, abound in such repetition, with intentional provisions for interpolated improvisations that invited even more of it.

In the more sophisticated synagogues of larger European cities, cantors tended to rein in that inclination. And in the interest of structural integrity as well as decorum, repetition was severely restrained in the khor shuls (even forbidden completely in many orthodox and traditional German synagogues). Unbridled effusiveness of cantorial delivery, too, was muted in the khor shuls, albeit without jeopardy to its fundamental eastern European character; and the repertoire could be balanced typically with settings from the German Synagogue tradition—especially those of Lewandowski and, to a lesser extent, Sulzer. But the middle-and upper-middle-class Jews who dominated the khor shul congregations were not the Jews who emigrated to America. The immigrants reveled in the emotional intensity promoted by repetition, and they heartily approved of its as a sine qua non of hazzanut. Still, in his liturgically geared improvisations or compositions, a schooled and musically intelligent hazzan has always been able to distinguish between repetitions that make artistic as well as liturgical sense and those that merely serve artificial vocal display without basis in the text.

In the rendition of un’tanne tokef in this volume that is attributed to Moshe Koussevitzky—originally an improvisation that he replicated in more or less the same way each year on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur at his synagogue in Brooklyn, New York—the repeated words and phrases make structural sense; and they reflect the imagery of the piyyut by intuiting and interpreting multiple layers of meaning. Whether he would have felt it necessary to reduce the rendition at his prewar khor shul pulpit in Warsaw we cannot know (this improvisation stems from his American years), although its dignity and appropriateness to text as well as occasion are not inconsistent with khor shul standards or those of the modern brand of orthodoxy promoted by those synagogues.

Samuel Malavsky’s virtually indiscriminate repetition of the words in his setting of haben yakir li efraim, on the other hand, overreaches. Anyone familiar with the course of hazzanut or its choral adjunct would recognize it instantly as an American creation born of a theatrical impulse. But Malavsky, otherwise a serious and artistic hazzan in his own solo renditions, devised this setting of a biblical quotation in the zikhronot section of the Rosh Hashana musaf liturgy for the service he conducted with his family choir. They were by design manifestly theatrical and aimed at congregations to whom this type of transparent entertainment appealed—even in the context of a Rosh Hashana service. He was not alone in treating this particular text in this manner, which in certain circles, although without European precedent, was an almost expected approach to the sentiments evoked by the words and their implications.

Indeed, such unabashed theatricality was another American stamp on hazzanut of that era. We find it in this volume in Alexander Olshanetsky’s setting of adonai z’kharanu, Psalm 115:12–18 from the Hallel service (see Yehezkel Braun's Hallel Service), and in Herman Wohl’s setting of hayyom harat olam, a pronouncement following each of the three subdivisions of the t’ki’atot service of the musaf service on Rosh Hashana (the malkhuyot, zikhronot, and shofarot). Both Olshanetsky’s and Wohl’s principal careers were as composers and conductors for the Yiddish productions of Second Avenue theaters, but like many of their colleagues in that medium, they also were involved with synagogue choirs—for which they composed as well as conducted. Wohl, who conducted the choir for Yossele Rosenblatt for a number of years at the First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek, wrote this piece originally for a Yiddish musical in which there was a scene that depicted part of a Rosh Hashana service. But he made use of it for Rosh Hashana services with his choir at Ohab Zedek, and the setting—which remains in manuscript—became known among local cantors and choirmasters. Whether or not Olshanetsky’s Psalm setting (also in manuscript) originated in the theatre, whether it was composed first for a recording, or whether indeed its primary purpose was Hallel recitation in the synagogue—a function that it acquired in any case—has not been determined.

Musical overlapping from the stage was not entirely an invention of the American Synagogue. There were numerous eastern European cantorial precedents for the adoption of tunes, accompanimental figurations, and stylistic features from Italian and French opera and from light operetta, especially for passages in the liturgy whose colorful imagery and dramatic references might be deemed appropriate for theatrical treatment. Except for the small minority of hazzanim and cantorial composers who were formally educated in—or substantially exposed to—Western music and its canon, and outside and apart from the khor shul milieu, the processes of such adoption, adaptation, and superimposition usually involved second- and thirdhand sources. Prominent among these were street bands and other such ensembles in public squares that popularized the melodies of operatic arias and choruses, which could then acquire a ubiquity—sometimes without awareness of their actual origins.

These appropriations for the synagogue might not always be deliberately or consciously done; nor were their operatic provenances necessarily recognizable by synagogue worshippers who—like the cantors and cantor-composers who co-opted the tunes—were unlikely ever to have been to an opera house. Once, when the legendary Zeidl Rovner was on tour in Odessa with his celebrated cantorial choir, his wife persuaded him to go with her to the opera—for the first time in his life. The production that evening was Gounod’s Faust. When the chorus broke into the famous rousing melody known as the “Soldiers’ Chorus,” an astonished Rovner—sitting in the gallery in the characteristic long black coat that was still worn by pious, unwesternized orthodox Jews, his beard prematurely white, and his head covered by a Lithuanian-style skullcap—turned to his wife spontaneously to utter, “Ganoves [thievery]! They stole my tune.” Somewhere within one of his many long-drawn-out compositions for cantor and choir, he had used that melody without realizing that he had not created it. Wherever he first heard it had been completely outside its opera house context. If it was known now beyond any of the regular pulpits he served, he assumed in all sincerity that he had made it so.

That acecdote is indicative of similar cantorial borrowing of operatic and other secular classical melodic material throughout much of 19th-century eastern Europe. Some cantors, though, were quite deliberate in their use of this procedure. Nissan Blumenthal (1805–1903), for example, defended it vigorously as a positive enhancement. But he was no small-town or itinerant cantor. He was the chief hazzan of Odessa’s first modern-oriented and progressive khor shul, the Broder Synagogue—founded in 1840 by émigrés from the Galician city of Brody. Blumenthal—who is sometimes cited as the first “khor hazzan” in eastern Europe and in some sense as Salomon Sulzer’s Russian Empire counterpart and initial advocate there—inaugurated that pulpit and remained there until his retirement late in the century. He viewed the incorporation of references from classical repertoire as artistically beneficial to hazzanut—if they were pursued judiciously, not as offhanded dilutions for the sake of popularity. He maintained that if a transferred melody seemed appropriate to the text and could fit into the proper prayer modes, it could be consistent with his high artistic standards to work it into a composition of his own—in which that preexisting melody would acquire a fresh identity compatible with cantorial tradition.

By the last quarter of the 19th century, worshippers at the khor shuls and other similarly modern-oriented synagogues in such cosmopolitan urban centers as Odessa, Vilna, Lodz, Czernowitz, or Warsaw included Jews who did go to classical music events and, especially, to the opera. Despite the growing body of works by Russian and Slavic composers, Italian opera often predominated there—at least until much later. Its imprint on hazzanut of nearly all stripes was particularly powerful, whether it came from firsthand exposure—or even voice instruction—or whether it was absorbed indirectly. The Italian approach to singing could be an engine for driving and facilitating the emblematic vocal pyrotechnics and acrobatics to which most hazzanim aspired, which by all accounts spoke emotionally to the preponderance of eastern European Jewry—as they did on the American scene. But for learned and musically educated hazzanim who presided over the pulpits in Western-influenced synagogues, the Italian operatic vocal technique could be understood simply as providing vocal polish, breath control, support, projection, and tonal focus.

Integration of operatic reverberations in the choral music in those same environments tended toward subtlety and refined classical treatments, and those echoes were likely to be tastefully veiled. For example, in a setting of the musaf k’dusha by Dunayevsky—the musically schooled choirmaster and de facto resident composer at the upscale synagogue on Richelieu Street in Odessa—there are strains from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (Masked Ball) as well as sustained, soaring dramatic tenor cantorial lines reminiscent generically of Verdi and some of his contemporaries. Far from being simplistic mimicry, these derivative features are interwoven with great skill into a composition that is entirely original.

We cannot so easily identify similar specific borrowing in Europe from commercial theatrical music. Future perusal of still unexamined cantorial-choral manuscripts is likely to reveal echoes from some of Avraham Goldfaden’s operettas (commercial in only some respects) and perhaps from other musical entertainment that in turn derived melodic material from folksong sources. Second Avenue as a musical-theatrical genre and a social phenomenon, however, was an American development, with no real European Jewish counterpart other than the indirect influence of Goldfaden operettas (and only in Second Avenue’s earliest phase). Hazzanut and its choral components that drew upon Second Avenue therefore have a decidedly American stamp.

Rosenblatt’s setting of uv’nukho yomar from the Torah service contains one of his best-known melodies. The Italian operatic influence on it is transparent, which is hardly surprising, since Rosenblatt was particularly fond of that genre and nearly always included at least one such aria (as well as a Schubert song) in his concert and recital programs and in the vaudeville appearances that were forced upon him after a financial disaster. Without knowing otherwise, one might even suspect that the bass solo passage—which is then taken up by cantor and full choir—comes from some obscure Verdi opera. But it does not. Though its flavor and turns of phrases are eminently Verdiesque, the entire piece is Rosenblatt’s own; and the Italianate elements are fused with his characteristic brand of hazzanut and some of its clichés to form a dignified rendering of the text.

Rosenblatt’s own recording of the piece has no choral part. The version used for the Milken Archive recording, however, is not an after-the-fact choral arrangement, but his own four-part männerchor composition. It is based on both his manuscript and his published folio, which was partly intended for performances by choruses such as the large TTBB male voice cantorial ensemble of the Hazzanim Farband (Jewish Ministers Cantors Association), which issued TTBB compositions and arrangements as the New York Cantors Association or as the Cantors Association of New York. The present recording reflects some harmonic adjustments and selective editing of that published version, but its original spirit is preserved. In Rosenblatt’s synagogue renditions, the choir of men and boys would have sung this setting in an SATB arrangement, which was the conception that predated his reworking it for männerchor expressly for publication. He sang it in both versions, depending on the context and occasion.

Apart from specifically theatrical influences, the wide embrace of other infectious, entertaining, and lighthearted adopted or original metrical tunes in the context of surrounding free-flowing hazzanut is sometimes assumed to have been manifestly American. Some of the melodies for the choir, for choral soloists, and for duets with the hazzan can be charming and innocently engaging—many of Joshua Lind’s, for example, that reflect his years as a young chorister in Europe with Zeidl Rovner. But others could cross boundaries of taste. There is some truth to the overall perception of an American imprint in this regard only in the sense that traditional American congregations appear to have welcomed such incursions uncritically and almost universally, while in Europe there were always divergent opinions regarding the appropriateness of any interpolated metrical tunes—regardless of their aesthetic merit.

Affable though sometimes simplistic and unceremonious tunes that supplement or provide contrast to nonmetrical hazzanut were indeed introduced by eastern European cantors and choirmasters throughout the 19th century. These included tunes in the spirit (and sometimes the actual substance) of military marches, soulful folksongs, homespun airs and ditties, and Hassidic dances. The convention had even earlier precedents: tunesmiths were much prized in the Baroque synagogues of Central and western Europe. But in general, by the second half of the 19th century, fondness for such supplementary metrical tunes—and for interlacing them with the ornamented coloratura and the modalities of hazzanut—seems to have been most widespread in the less sophisticated and less musically educated circles that reveled in sheer enjoyment of melody without much concern about its source. There could be a bit more selectivity in cosmopolitan urban settings, and far more cautious and discriminating use of metrical tunes in khor shul environments.

Perceived Hassidic and even quasi-Hassidic tunes (i.e., those that betray features of Hassidic spirit but are not Hassidic products) could be suspect as implying an agenda. But such objections were often easily dispelled. Moreover, cantor-composers such as Nissi Belzer and Zeidl Rovner, although their innate talents and melodic proclivities were undoubtedly fed and encouraged by their exposure to the melos of Hassidic courts early on in their cantorial journeys, were gifted melodists in their own right. So were many of their disciples, among whom were often their former choristers.

A number of respected hazzanim promoted incorporation of metrical tunes, while others were equally forceful in their stated avoidance of even tasteful ones as still out of character with the dignity of worship and the spirituality of hazzanut. During the 1920s, issue after issue of the Yiddish cantorial journal Di Chazonim Velt (The Cantors’ World), published monthly in Warsaw until 1939, contained ad seriatim polemics titled “Should a Hazzan Sing Lidlekh [little tunes]?” The subject was also debated earlier in cantorial journals published in Vienna and Germany, with cantors coming out on both sides of the issue. These articles attest to a long-running controversy.

In America there were no such debates among the immigrant star cantors, even if not every one of them approved personally of the tunes introduced by his choirmaster. Except for some articles in Di Chazonim Velt and elsewhere by the erudite Cantor Joshua Samuel Weisser [Pilderwasser] decrying what he saw as the decaying state of hazzanut in America, the American cantorial fraternity did not express much open disapproval of undisputedly tasteless and even vulgar tunes until the 1950s or afterward. Congregational preferences in America were not to be ignored.

Not all such metrical tunes, however, were lacking in merit, even if they appealed primarily to popular and uncomplicated sensibilities. Lind was adept at satisfying those emotional cravings with original and often musically interesting melodies, some of which could also betray his sense of humor. He interspersed these among his choral settings, juxtaposed against exciting solo cantorial writing. Lind, of course, was not only a serious hazzan but also an esteemed cantorial teacher.

The Lind compositions in this volume (along with others in Volumes 3 and 4) are prime illustrations of his melodic gifts. The two piyyutim for Yom Kippur eve, Ya’ale and Ki hinnei kahomer, are discussed briefly in a comparative consideration that also addresses Mark Silver’s different approach to the latter text. Both piyyutim have long-standing traditions of combining tuneful application to some of the strophes with cantorial treatment of others—all bound by a refrain. Lind follows this tradition closely. His setting of Emet ve’emuna, a prayer text of the evening services, was clearly influenced by the spirit of the two famous and lengthy compositions for the same text by Zeidl Rovner, in whose choir Lind sang as a child and who was his de facto teacher in Europe. Yet every melody and passage in Lind’s piece is his own. Although it may seen incongruous and overly entertaining by 21st-century standards, this type of colorful dramatic expression, together with its brilliant and almost stuntlike interplay between cantor and choir in the coda, was once eagerly anticipated in advance of Sabbath eve services. Rovner’s compositions for emet ve’emuna, which Lind knew intimately, created much of that expectation in the world of cantorial aficionados.

Kaminsky’s setting of Modim [anaḥnu lakh], which occurs toward the end of the amida, was intended specifically for the Sabbath musaf service—even though it could be performed within other services as well. It is similar to Lind’s style in its melodic approach. Indeed, it was one of the few compositions by others that Lind himself sang with his choir when he officiated at Sabbath services (as did his three cantorial sons, whose repertoire almost exclusively otherwise comprised their father’s settings); and the Milken Archive recording is based on Lind’s edited version. The prayer occurs in the cantor’s repetition of the silently recited amida.

During the cantor’s intonation of modim, however, the congregation must simultaneously recite a text that begins with the same phrase; but after the first nine words, the two texts diverge. Kaminsky cleverly addressed this duality by having the cantor sing the same text as he would in the absence of the choir, while the choir sings the congregational text such that the two are intermeshed as a single composition. His is not the only setting so constructed; another more elaborate one well known to cantors is attributed to a hazzan by the name of Vladovsky who served pulpits in Canada as well as the United States. There are no known cantorial-choral compositions for this text emanating from Europe, and the very practice of emphasizing it with cantorial-choral interpretation appears to be an American innovation. The same is true of all the texts following the k’dusha in the cantor’s repetition of musaf on Sabbaths.

Zavel Zilberts’s extended setting of the Aramaic Yom Kippur prayer text raamana reflects his khor shul experience as choirmaster of the central synagogue in Moscow prior to the First World War. This is a musically sophisticated work in which he employed contrapuntal procedures and noble melodic treatment to great effect, but always in the service of the words, their meaning, and their implications. Completely unlike Lind’s setting (Volume 3), whose mirthful and even boisterous opening is akin to a quasi-Hassidic dance tune, this one interprets the opening lines with deep reverence and humility. Both settings accompany the final words imploring God to act “Now, soon, in our own time!” with spirited optimism; but in mood and character the two approaches to those words differ drastically. Lind’s is folklike; Zilberts’s is classical. Yet each has legitimacy in its expression.

Although it was composed in America and aimed primarily at American orthodox and traditional services for Hoshana Rabba—the seventh day of the Festival of Sukkot—Moshe Ganchoff’s setting of Hosha na even sh’siya comes closest among the compositions in this volume to reflecting the spirit of the solo cantorial style one might have heard in the modern khor shul of eastern Europe. The text is an acrostic piyyut comprising twenty-two alphabetical synonyms that refer to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Chanted during the second of seven processions on Hoshana Rabba, this is one of Ganchoff’s most beloved works. Its cantorial lines combine emotional intensity with restraint and dignity, and its formal structure is carefully conceived with judicious timing and pacing. The refrain, which the congregants join in singing during their procession, is at once uplifting and awesome in its regal simplicity.

Also eminently classical in their blends of majestic cantorial interpretation and solid choral writing are Zilberts’s Adonai z’kharanu and Aaron [Adolph] Katchko’s service, Avodat aharon.


Hazzanut in all its guises, forms, and styles—simple or elaborate, functional or virtuosic, awe-inspiring or mirthful—is first and foremost prayer. Its natural habitat is the synagogue, whence it sprang and where it has flourished. As a synthesis of cultivated art and inherited folk tradition, its lifeblood lies in its interpretation of liturgy—a process in which listeners are ideally participants in a heightened and ennobled communication.

Not unlike sacred music that originated as the liturgical and theological expression of other faiths, however, hazzanut eventually acquired a secondary public concert dimension altogether outside the context of worship services. References in this connection are often to “hazzanut for the concert stage.” But that description can inadvertently lend an unwanted, impersonal, and removed commercial image to music that, notwithstanding the variety of its moods, is still fundamentally a religious expression.

The totality of the experience of a cantorial concert might still best be appreciated in an aesthetically evocative and acoustically natural synagogue venue. An analogous desiderata could apply to a concert performance of a Palestrina Mass, for example, whose ideal surrounding for Renaissance music aficionados might be a vaulted cathedral rather than a modern concert hall devoid of any religious association other than the inherent spirituality of all art at its height. In either case, the music can and should be able to stand on its own merits as music. What is suggested by this observation is simply that the spiritual foundations and undercurrents of hazzanut even in concert performance might be further reinforced by the authenticity that a conducive ambience can provide.

A number of the cantorial compositions and renditions in this volume represent—either in their origin or in their expanded versions—“concert hazzanut” as a special subcategory of the genre and as it developed specifically in America. Some of these pieces were created primarily for concert performances or for recording, while others began as synagogue renditions and were subsequently elaborated and in many cases orchestrated for the concert medium.

The performance of a prayer-oriented medium in a nonliturgical environment may at first seem incongruous—especially if we acknowledge the entertainment-tinged parameters of some of those concerts. Indeed, there were cantors who originally opposed concert performances, as well as recordings and broadcasts, on one or more religious grounds. It is difficult for us to imagine today, for example, that in the 1920s the cantorial fraternity in London issued public appeals for Jews to refrain from attending concerts by the renowned (and undisputedly pious) cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. When Pinchas Minkowski—the erudite last hazzan of the Broder Shulin Odessa—immigrated to America in 1921, he opposed all recording of hazzanut as a perceived desecration of a sacred calling. So did Cantors David Putterman and Max Wohlberg, originally also shunning recordings and broadcasts as near sacrilege, although they later relented after realizing their educational, artistic, and documentary value. In his decision to reverse his stance, Hazzan Wohlberg always pointed to the regrettable fact that the voice of so important a hazzan as Minkowski was lost forever, when it could have been preserved.

There is a certain retrospective irony in the early religiously based opposition. Extravagant virtuoso cantorial concerts became a renewed fashion in the rigidly orthodox world in Israel as well as in America in the late 20th century—among the very circles who often reject the same type of cantorial renditions for the synagogue worship that gave birth to hazzanut. In any case, nearly all early internal opposition to concerts faded as cantors realized the practical remunerative as well as cultural benefits. Cantorial concerts came to be accepted as a logical extension of the art form, augmenting but not replacing the primary liturgical and spiritual function of hazzanut. Concerts provided and still provide opportunities for a broader public to avail itself of virtuoso cantorial expression; and they have enabled legions of aficionados to hear the acknowledged masters of the day.

Yet the very nature of the concert atmosphere permitted and even encouraged further vocal elaboration, display, and word repetition, as well as lengthier renditions than would be considered appropriate in the synagogue, even for the same texts. Israel Schorr’s Sheyyibane beit hammikdash is such an example. Eventually cantors created settings specifically for concert use, which sometimes included texts not usually emphasized musically in synagogue services. In addition, traditional cantorial concerts frequently have included nonliturgical selections, such as Yiddish songs that nonetheless organically incorporate or quote elements of hazzanut. Pierre Pinchik’s Der khazn un der gabe is a typical illustration—a song about a cantor and cantorial issues in which florid hazzanut and even improvisation punctuate the Yiddish story line. This piece requires a virtuoso hazzan for its performance.

Traditional hazzanut is exclusively a vocal art form, accompanied throughout its history in the synagogue by a cappella choir. But without the religious-legal (halakhic) restrictions against instrumental usage that apply on the Sabbath, Festivals, High Holy Days, and a few other liturgical occasions—as well as during certain periods on the calendar (between Pesah and Shavuot and during the three weeks prior to Tisha Ba’av)—concert performances even in orthodox settings have invited instrumental support as one of several presumed aesthetic enhancements. Hazzanut with orchestra became popular—and for some cantors a favored ideal, depending on the available resources. In typical cantorial orchestrations without choral participation, the orchestra essentially substitutes for the choir in providing introductory phrases, interludes, cadential responses, “fills,” and sustained pedal-point underpinnings.

Concerts with orchestra do not, however, preclude a cappella concert renditions of choral pieces—with or without cantorial solo roles—either juxtaposed against orchestrated selections or on programs devoted to the a cappella tradition. These unaccompanied renditions preserve authentic choral timbres and stereotypical clichés.

There were cantorial concerts with orchestra in prewar eastern as well as Central and western Europe, but very few notated orchestrations or even sketches from that time are extant. The medium truly blossomed in the United States, not only because resources were more readily available, but also because many radio stations typically employed resident or house orchestral ensembles for their live broadcasts. A reasonable body of cantorial orchestrations does exist in archival collections, and others have been done by arrangers and orchestrators in Israel. With one or two exceptions, however, the orchestrations for this volume were commissioned by the Milken Archive.


Many of the cantorial pieces in this volume were created by virtuoso cantors themselves—originally more or less specifically for their own performances. Historically, most accomplished cantors have been cantor-composers, including those who required the services of others to notate their compositions and even their well-worked-out and well-planned improvisations. (Hazzan Max Wohlberg was always fond of telling students that for safety’s sake, the best improvisations were “those that are composed in advance.”) In the so-called golden ages of hazzanut, in Europe and in America, the art of hazzanut implied originality not only in interpretation and vocal style but equally in the creation of recitatives and improvisations. Few of the great cantors of those eras sang material composed by other cantors, except for formal compositions with structured choral parts in which skilled hazzanim still interpolated improvisatory passages, ornamentations, and embellishments without jeopardy to the integrity of the pieces. Those interpolations were often expected by composers who, in their overall conceptions, relied on the taste and judgment of the cantors who would sing their compositions.

Other pieces here were composed by cantorial choirmasters who excelled in conducting for hazzanim; who cultivated special related techniques and required sensitivities to peculiarly cantorial types of rubato, ritardandos, and other rhythmic freedoms and suppleness of vocal lines; and who brought these skills to their compositions. Some of these composers, such as Zavel Zilberts and Meyer Machtenberg, worked primarily in the liturgical realm as conductors and composers; others, such as Alexander Olshanetsky, Herman Wohl, Joseph Rumshinsky, Sholom Secunda, and Abraham Ellstein, were songwriters for Second Avenue but were also capable—and in some cases expert—synagogue conductors.

Some of the learned cantors in Europe composed full choral settings without relying on choirmasters or other arrangers: Boruch Schorr, Eduard Birnbaum, Hirsch Weintraub, B’tzallel Brun, Osias (Pitzele) Abrass, Pinchas (Pinye) Minkowski, and Avraham Moshe Bernstein, among others. Less schooled cantor-composers such as Nissi Belzer and Zeidl Rovner also notated the full four-part sections of their pieces. But in those cases, despite a wealth of originality and imagination, considerable rearranging, editing, and reconstructing of manuscripts is necessary to bring the primitive harmonic levels, faulty voice leading, and often indecipherable and even missing parts into line with contemporary yet period-specific performance standards—or to make them performable at all. Still others among the legendary European hazzanim composed only solo hazzanut, whether or not they also notated it themselves.

In the United States, Rosenblatt, Katchko, and Lind were among the very few émigré hazzanim who undertook to compose for the choir. Most others of their ilk in America composed only the solo vocal lines, as many of their colleagues, former colleagues, and predecessors did in Europe. They relied on arrangers (their choirmasters, piano accompanists for concerts, or others) to furnish choral accompaniments and other choral dimensions, and, in nearly all cases, on professional orchestrators to fashion orchestral accompaniments for concerts, recordings, and radio broadcasts. Moreover, even those cantors with demonstrated ability to compose for choir sometimes did so only for some of their creations, leaving others to choral arrangers or to improvisatory choral accompaniment in the synagogue. Rosenblatt never actually composed a choral version of his famous setting of tal, a piyyut recited on Pesah asking God for dew. He recorded it without choir, even though the melodic structures provide ample material for the more formal choral arrangement. His choir furnished at least some accompaniment and augmentation when he sang itin the synagogue. No manuscript of a choral arrangement dating to his lifetime has been located. The arrangement employed for the Milken Archive recording, which has been used by cantors in concert performance, is a slightly edited version of one by Peloni X. Almoni.

Since each cantor who created settings did so for the unique qualities and attributes of his own voice, some knowledge about individual artistic approaches is necessary for our appreciation of the repertoire featured in this volume. Something of that knowledge, at least on a preliminary level, may be gleaned from the biographical sketches of the cantor-composers.


Women’s voices are excluded from synagogue choirs in orthodox contexts, where Jewish legal (halakhic) prohibitions are held to apply. The history and evolution of the Ashkenazi synagogue choir—from our earliest evidence of its beginnings in Europe during the Middle Ages until the beginning of the modern era—thus concerns exclusively male voices: children and adults. Unmatured boys’ voices were an important feature from the earliest skeletal accompanimental ensembles, long before the emergence of four-part singing. Women’s voices were first introduced in modern Germany in the 19th century, as part of the radical Reform path—although not in its earliest stages, in which the male choir was preserved not for any halakhic reasons, but out of the standards of propriety that prevailed for a while. Later, women’s voices were introduced into the choirs of the mainstream, traditionally grounded Liberale synagogues in Germany and within its cultural orbit, and into the Neologue synagogues of “Greater Hungary” (Hungary, Slovakia, and adjacent regions).

The radically new female voice component eventually accompanied the Reform approach as it spread elsewhere in western Europe and to Great Britain, and as it was refashioned in America. Even so, some of the earliest Reform congregations in the United States began with male-only choirs. Temple Emanu-El in New York, for example, one of the two first congregations to be founded specifically as Reform—having emerged from Reform societies—included only men and boys in its initial choir, which was organized and directed by its cantor, Gustave M. Cohen. Meanwhile, the male voice format remained firmly the rule—with only a few curious and little-known exceptions—among all orthodox synagogues in western and Central Europe; in the cantorial bastions of east Central and eastern Europe (the Czarist and Hapsburg empires and Rumania), to which organized Reform movements did not come formally despite numerous experiments with liberalization; and in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Holy Land, and the New World.

The original and quintessential choral sound associated with traditional eastern European hazzanut from at least the late 18th century on was always four-part SATB, with boys (or occasionally mature male sopranos, but not countertenors) singing the soprano and alto lines and with adult male tenors and basses. Renditions were of course always a cappella. The American transplantation of eastern European hazzanut also featured that all-male SATB format for as long as possible, giving way only gradually to alternative all-adult male voice choirs, or männerchors, as it became increasingly difficult to interest qualified boys in sufficient numbers. Still, the typical SATB men-and-boys sound informed the compositions of a large and varied synagogue choral repertoire in America, as it did in Europe.

Prior to the Milken Archive project, very little of this repertoire was ever professionally recorded in the authentic SATB male voice format. In those few cases in which such recordings were attempted—when synagogue boy choirs still flourished—the process was makeshift. With rare exceptions (one of which is a stunning recording made in Toronto in the 1950s by Cantor Zvi Aroni, who personally trained the boys in the choir), the results are musically unrefined, vocally crude, and generally unworthy of both the featured cantor and the music itself. These shortcomings were accentuated by technological limitations in the recording process.

Representative cantorial-choral compositions dating to the prewar era in the American orthodox and traditional milieu—including some of the best-known settings—have been recorded by the Milken Archive not only for the first time but also with proper consideration of the authentic choral sound. The combined professional choir of male adult and childrens’ voices comes as near as possible to the composers’ expectations in terms of timbres and choral clichés, and as close as possible to the aural habitat that originally hosted these selections (although no retrospective reconstruction can actually replicate all the dimensions).


As it became increasingly difficult to sustain boy choirs in American synagogues for a variety of sociological reasons not unique to the Jewish community, many choirmasters had no choice but to substitute the four-part adult male format: first and second tenors, baritones, and basses. They would then have to make or commission new TTBB arrangements of pieces that had been composed for SATB choirs. Gradually, the TTBB sound also came to typify hazzanut in American orthodox and traditional synagogues; eventually it became the predominant associative timbre. Whenever possible, a boy alto or a boy soprano soloist would still be employed for solo passages and duets with the cantor. In response to those altered circumstances, some composers also began addressing the TTBB format directly. A number of pieces in this volume (and nearly all in the S’liot service in Volume 3) fall into these categories and were sung in orthodox synagogues for decades in TTBB arrangements of the original SATB compositions: Rosenblatt’s Uv’nukho yomar, Sholom Secunda’s Yir’u eineinu and Ki leka tov, and Meyer Machtenberg’s R’tze. These were recorded with special attention to the characteristic choral clichés and effects that attended the original performance practice.

TTBB arrangement of pieces originally composed for SATB requires special adroitness on the part of the arranger as well as finely tuned sensitivities to männerchor timbres and special effects. The first tenor cannot simply be assigned the soprano line, with baritones singing the alto part, leaving everything else unchanged; nor do simple adjustments here and there suffice. The TTBB arrangement must be approached as a fresh conception, with change of key often necessary. The key of an SATB piece may provide insufficient resonance for a men’s choir, for which certain keys work particularly well (F-sharp major or minor, for example, or A-flat minor, but not F minor or D minor) with closely spaced harmonies in the lower registers. Spacing, chord structures, and even harmonizations may need alteration; unison passages that might be uninteresting in the SATB format can be highly effective sung TTBB; and there are many other considerations.

Rearrangement to TTBB formats using these techniques was not unknown in eastern European synagogues, even in the 19th century, when for one reason or another only adult male voices were available. But such rearrangements appear to have been made on a case-by-case basis, probably in smaller town and cities or for the less famous itinerant choirs. (Well-known traveling choirs, such as Zeidl Rovner’s, which included large numbers of boy sopranos and altos, were in great demand for tours.) That individual choirmasters had to make and use such TTBB arrangements is known from reports and descriptions, though some simply “fixed things” at rehearsals without leaving a paper trail. There is hardly any extant manuscript evidence.

The pieces in the many printed collections and anthologies of synagogue choral repertoire emanating from eastern Europe and published either there or in Germany are all voiced for SATB, apart from an occasional TTBB setting included merely for timbral variety. The same is true of the far more voluminous manuscript literature. There is no known European synagogue composer who specialized in writing for adult male voice choir. There was never a männerchor tradition in the European synagogue world. In addition to that innovation in the United States, however, orthodox synagogues in the British Isles began to substitute adult male voice choirs for the former SATB ensembles by the 1930s and 1940s, for reasons similar to those that appertained in America. Although the SATB choirs lingered a bit longer in England than on the other side of the Atlantic, acceptance of and attraction to the männerchor medium was facilitated eventually by the model of the London Jewish Male Choir—a dedicated concert ensemble of amateur singers mostly from the orthodox world that, under the direction of Emanuel Fischer, made an international name for itself and established definitive männerchor renditions of major liturgical works. The TTBB format as an orthodox norm and as a sound associated with orthodox worship came thus to be English and American traditions.


Concert choruses of cantors also generated a body of TTBB Hebrew liturgical repertoire. Often combining amateur and trained cantors, these choruses flourished in a few large American cities beginning around the 1920s, and it was only natural that their need for concert repertoire inspired composers as well as arrangers.

The Hazzanim Farband Khor—the chorus of the Jewish Ministers Cantors Association in New York—was the largest of these choirs, and probably the first. At its peak, its annual Carnegie Hall concerts featured an ensemble of more than a hundred voices. During Zavel Zilberts’s tenure as its director, he acquired a special understanding of the medium and wrote some of his finest works for these concert performances. His Al naharot bavel and Raamana, recorded by the Milken Archive for this volume, and his El melekh yoshev in the S’liot service in Volume 3, are classic examples.

Los Angeles had a similar but smaller cantorial chorus, also sponsored by that city’s Jewish Ministers Cantors Association; and its director, Solomon Ancis, wrote many of his works expressly for its concerts. Most of them remain in manuscript and are not readily accessible. Fortunately, they require little if any editing. Ancis’s well-known Mi shebera, though it is eminently appropriate for synagogue services, was written originally as a concert piece. It was subsequently published along with several other of his settings.


The greatest part of notated hazzanut as well as its choral component was never published and remains in manuscript, if extant at all. Some manuscript collections are reasonably intact, but identifying or locating them can require insider knowledge. Other collections are less than organized, with owners unaware of their contents; and those that have been donated to (more accurately, dumped upon) libraries often remain uncatalogued and unidentified, partly because the highly specialized knowledge needed for the work on these particular types of manuscripts is rarely possessed by anyone on the staffs of those institutions. Moreover, there are many pieces known to have been composed but which have not been found in any collection. There are also problems concerning authentification, especially when there is no verifiable urtext or manuscript in the identifiable handwriting of the composer. Unfounded and insupportable attributions of authorship abound, and many copyists (often the choirmasters themselves) simply placed a name on a master copy based on assumption or hearsay.

Historically informed editing is necessary for nearly all such manuscripts as well as for many carelessly published items. Hazzanut and its choral adjunct are such highly stylized genres—and so reliant for their spirit and communication upon orally transmitted and unwritten performance traditions—that published scores rarely reveal the information needed for authentic realization. Tempo, dynamics, rhythmic freedom, and phrasing are issues shared with other musics. Unique to hazzanut and the problems of its notation, however, are its distinctive types of ornamentation, embellishment, approach to tone, improvised interpolations, and expected but unnotated choral responses and supporting undertones.

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